Don’t Shoot the Messenger: The Emotions Behind “Poor Communication”

Stuart Sinclair - February 27, 2017
When your latest employee survey is filled with complaints about “poor communication”, you may think the solution is, well, better communication. But before you rush out and buy the latest employee communications app, (even ours!), you might want to consider why employees cite “poor communication” as a major gripe.

In an interesting article for the Harvard Business Review, Art Markman, Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas suggests that complaints about lack of communication are actually a symptom of uncertainty.

Why do employees feel this way?

Markman suggests that human feeling are created in the part of the brain associated with motivation, quite separate from the area responsible for assessing our actions. So, when you ask employees a simplistic question around their feelings towards the workplace, they know if they feel positive or negative. However, ask them why they feel that way, and they might struggle to come up with a valid reason.

The suggestion is that if you are trying to address a specific problem, then employees are more likely to choose that problem as the source of their negative feelings. If there are no specific problems to choose, then employees will opt for a familiar issue, lack of information. They may feel that they didn’t have sufficient information to make an informed decision or take the right course of action. Hence the creation of the poor communications scapegoat.

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Assumptions and associated actions

As Markman points out, given complaints about communication, managers will want to react quickly, but not necessarily correctly.

“When taken literally, as a communication problem, managers look for new modes of communication to ensure information is provided. They create new emails, newsletters, meetings, or bulletin boards. The assumption is that greater access to information is the solution.”

Of course, if the underlying cause is not lack of communication at all, and employees simply cannot articulate what is actually bothering them, all the best information in the world will not resolve the issue.

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Be specific

Markman suggests the solution lies in being specific. By encouraging employees to focus on what went wrong recently for them, different reasons for the negative feelings may emerge. These might include the lack of authority to act to resolve issues, or absence of clarity.

“It’s important to understand the limitations of people’s ability to report what is bothering them, whether it’s in a one-on-one conversation or in a feedback survey. When you ask people a question, they typically want to give an answer. How good that answer is, though, depends on what access people have to the information that forms the basis of the answer.”


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The importance of a holistic viewpoint

That’s why we at Talk Freely consider it important to give you a holistic view of what’s happening in your organisation. Our software may seem like other business communications apps, but under the bonnet, it’s a powerful and effective channel for requesting, analysing and processing ideas and feedback on a whole variety of topics, challenges and business goals.

By enabling employees to receive information, create their own, share it with colleagues, discuss ideas with peers, AND give ideas and feedback direct to management, it gives them a more balanced viewpoint.

In turn, when you ask those specific questions about how they feel about an issues, it’s more likely they can articulate reasons and share examples that point to a more deep-rooted reason for discontent, rather than plumping for the usual suspects.

A sense of perspective

Being part of a virtual community within your organisation also gives employees a sense of perspective, which can mitigate the impact of individual gripes and departmental bias. Add in the benefits of peer to peer recognition and reward, and Talkfreely offers employees the chance to experience empathy for the entire organisation, not just their direct colleagues.

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